Can Gitmo's Terrorists Be Rehabilitated?


Jun 29, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on June 29, 2009.

Before he closes Guantánamo, Obama must take a clear-eyed look at the record – and anticipate the next chapter of the fight against terrorism.

What happens to terrorist suspects after they leave the detention center at Guantánamo Bay?

According to a Pentagon report leaked in May, 14 percent are engaged in terrorist activity. While many of their identities remain unknown, details are available about a handful of high-profile recidivists.

Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi was picked up by the United States in Afghanistan, accused of aiding the Taliban. He spent four years at Guantánamo and was then released and repatriated to Kuwait. Acquitted by a criminal court, he then traveled to Iraq, where he drove an explosives-packed truck into an Iraqi Army base in 2008, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and himself.

More troubling are the cases of Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul and Said Ali al-Shihri. Mr. Rasoul, who was released to the Afghan government in December 2007, is now the Taliban's operations leader in southern Afghanistan. Mr. Shihri was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program before becoming the deputy leader of Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen.

Some argue the alleged 14 percent rate is inflated, as it is based on a definition of "militant activity" so broad as to include merely associating with terrorists. Others say the figure compares favorably with the 68 percent recidivism rate for US criminals. Even if slightly inflated, these examples illustrate a broader policy problem for the Obama administration: unanticipated consequences of US counterterrorism policy actions.

Detainees from Yemen pose an especially difficult problem. Forty percent of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo are from Yemen, but it is a country ill-equipped to deal with their return.

Yemen has developed a rehabilitation program modeled on Saudi Arabia's, but so far it has yet to work as well. The escape of 13 Al Qaeda suspects from a Yemeni prison in 2006 undermines confidence in the country's ability to secure dangerous inmates if the US were to send them home.

Al Qaeda has a growing presence in Yemen, underscored by the attack last September on the US Embassy – an attack in which Shihri's involvement is suspected. A brutal murder of three foreign aid workers occurred just this month, bearing the hallmarks of Al Qaeda. An infusion of battle-tested jihadists back into that nation could further embolden the movement.

Yemen is applying diplomatic pressure to have its detainees repatriated upon the closure of Guantánamo. But in light of the country's counterterrorism track record, this would be unwise.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, appears to have developed a relatively successful effort to rehabilitate terrorists, though there are still no comprehensive and objective assessments. For a time, the Saudis boasted a 100 percent success rate, but recent cases like that of Shihri have put a damper on that record.

Still, the Saudi approach of intense religious discussion, followed by generous financial support, employment assistance, and long-term monitoring seems, so far, to have reintegrated a large number of former militants.

Yemen should study the Saudi example, but it will take several years and significant funding to replicate that program effectively. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia probably remains the best destination for Yemeni detainees.

Since 9/11, the US has consistently failed to anticipate and plan for the consequences of its counterterrorism decisions. It underestimated the radicalizing impact of US military operations in Iraq – a costly oversight given the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It has also underestimated the impact of creating a legally ill-defined detention center at Guantánamo. Both have proved damaging to US interests.

The approach taken toward the detainee issue portends similar strategic consequences, as do the ongoing operations in the volatile regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. How will the US handle the terrorist operatives it captures there? A greater effort should be made to anticipate the long-term effects of American actions.

There is a growing body of research on extremism that must be absorbed into counterterrorism strategy. Studies have documented a pattern of radicalization inside prisons even among prisoners not previously affiliated with terrorist networks. How is this process compounded in environments like Guantánamo?

Further study may provide clues to mitigating the factors that fuel radicalization and offer insights into effective measures for rehabilitation.

Closing Guantánamo Bay will remove a deeply resented symbol, but it will not address the enduring challenge of dealing with incarcerated militants.

The detainees who remain at Guantánamo have had years to reevaluate and perhaps upgrade their ideological convictions as well as develop new personal networks. Those who are ultimately released are likely to be welcomed home as heroes by Al Qaeda followers, their status enhanced by the legend of their Guantánamo experience.

The cases of Rasoul and Shihri – perhaps isolated – should serve as warnings.

As his self-imposed January deadline approaches, President Obama is likely to face mounting political pressure to resolve these issues. Guantánamo serves as a reminder of Bush-era policies that many would like to forget.

One way for Mr. Obama to demonstrate a new era in the fight against terrorism is to show a great degree of foresight. Before he closes Guantánamo, he needs a plan that anticipates the next chapter of this struggle.

Aidan Kirby Winn is a national security project associate at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution that aims to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

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